Terry Jones, the crackpot Christian cultist with the Lemmy Kilmister mustache, was “hateful” and “intolerant” when he burned the Muslim holy book last month, said Gen. David Petraeus, commander of American forces in Afghanistan. Mark Sedwill, NATO’s ambassador to Afghanistan, denounced Jones’s stunt as “an act of disrespect to the Muslim faith and to all peoples of faith.” Faced with crowds of braying and baying religious fanatics, it’s doubtless true that countless soldiers and diplomats feel the same.
It would be nice if Petraeus and Sedwill would spare a word for the immutability of freedom of speech, no matter how lunkheaded or convoluted the “message” from Jones, but their reactions—merely attempts to calm the crowds—are both understandable and necessary. When a press-hungry lunatic, whose appetite for television time is consistently satiated by self-righteous members of the media, is providing violent lunatics with a pretext to behead civilians, it is hardly unreasonable to point it out that his “political statement” is “disrespectful.” But in a media culture that demands apportionment of blame, so mindlessly displayed after the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords, it’s rather important to confront those who hold the non-violent fundamentalist responsible for the actions of the violent ones.
So when Fox News host Bill O’Reilly bleats that Jones has “blood on his hands” for burning a copy of the Koran, he treats the killers’ justifications—we were driven to murder by a Florida pastor with a flock of 20—as somehow legitimate. Members of the religious right, as many demonstrated during the Salman Rushdie affair, are often the first to denounce agitation against other religions, concerned both that they could be charged with hypocrisy when demanding special protection for Christianity and that their faith could be the next target.
But it has been a bipartisan parade of buffoonery, with left-wing radio host and Kremlin check-casher Thom Hartmann wondering if Jones could be “tried for treason” or, failing that, if book burning could be prosecuted as a “hate crime.” Nor must one strain to find bloggers and pundits exploiting the Jones stunt to issue dire warnings about American Islamophobia.
Which raises a question: How would these same pundits, left and right, react if a band of mouth-breathing Christians, angry at the rather more serious problem of Christian converts in Afghanistan being sentenced to death for apostasy, set upon and hacked to death a group of vaguely Middle Eastern looking immigrants? Where is the locus of blame to be placed? Upon the murderers? Or the government (not private citizen, as in the Jones case) of a foreign country, meting out prison sentences for freely practicing an “alien” religion? This doesn’t suggest so much political correctness as it does contempt for non-Western Muslims. If we don’t play by the rules set down by the most retrograde practitioners of the faith, the gangster class of Islam, then “a billion Muslims” will sharpen their scimitars and let NATO employees have it.
But the most shameful reactions have come from the Senate, where both Democrats and Republicans determined, as they frequently do, that in “wartime,” the constitution should be ignored, if not nullified. Here is Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), when asked what was to be done about Terry Jones: “I wish we could find a way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war.” And Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), wondering how the Senate could get its grubby hands around the First Amendment: "We’ll take a look at this of course...as to whether we need hearings or not, I don’t know.” The vulgar little crook and American client Hamid Karzai, of course, did everything possible to stoke the embers of hatred in Afghanistan—a country with one of the world’s highest rates of illiteracy—calling attention to Jones after the rest of the world had stop paying attention. (The United States has an unfortunate history of thuggish puppets, but the point is to have a pliant client; Washington turns a blind eye to the nasty bits because a Somoza or Shah will unquestioningly do America’s bidding, right?)
What is most dispiriting is not how frequently hyper-sensitive religious adherents denounce free speech, but the long history of Western intellectual complicity in calls for self-censorship. When Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, earning him a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini (a sort of Booker Prize for Persian fundamentalists), former President Jimmy Carter wrote that he “must have anticipated a horrified reaction throughout the Islamic world” and that the novel was “an insult.” A mild book (and its mild author) is, therefore, to be held partially accountable for the campaign of terror it “produced.” John Berger, John Le Carre, and Roald Dahl all echoed Carter, suggesting that the problem with The Satanic Verses wasn’t the bearded psychopaths in Tehran, but with the bearded author in London.
And before Rushdie, it wasn’t uncommon to hear pleas that musicians and writers temper “controversial” messages in their art, lest those sensitive, damaged, and easily-provoked members of society act out in response. When two teens committed suicide in 1985 after, their parents insisted, listening to the heavy metal band Judas Priest, lawyers claimed that the band’s record labels—or publishers, or cracked preachers—“have a duty to be more cautious when you're dealing with a population susceptible to this stuff.” In other words, in art, culture, and debate, it will be the deranged that set limits on speech.
If we followed this sage advice, ours would be a world without South Park, hip-hop, Christopher Hitchens—anything that could be considered offensive by a “susceptible” or aggrieved group. And if Harry Reid or Lindsey Graham think it’s a swell idea to prevent the burning of the Koran, I can only recommend that any Mormons angry with Matt Stone and Trey Parker burn down the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. We wouldn’t blame you. You were, after all, needlessly provoked.
Michael C. Moynihan is senior editor of Reason magazine.